Nathaniel Wentworth Cumner by J. W. Fellows

The ancestors of the Cumner family were of English origin. The name is first discovered in the period following the supremacy of the Norman rule,—the return from the dynasty of the Conqueror to the ascendency of the English-Saxon line. It was first spelled Comnor, and later Cumnor, meaning "hospitality to strangers," or a "place of hospitality," and comes through the Saxon branch. To this period may be referred the formation of many English family names,—often derived from some unimportant circumstance, or suggested by personal characteristics. These became marks of distinction, new titles to manhood, and were proudly bequeathed by father to son,—"inherited sur-names."

During the century following the loss of Normandy, the Anglo-Saxon, as a written language, having been banished from courts and superseded in all legal papers by the Latin, became dearer to the common people as a spoken language, preserving their cherished objects and transmitting leading sentiments. It increased its power and volume by building new terms and means of expression, and particularly by multiplying its patronymics. In a comparatively short space of time the language had become vernacular, and fairly entitled to be styled English, rich in the idioms and proper names of its own creation and outgrowth.

"The history of words," says Trench, "is the history of ideas," and he might have said of people and nations. They are not only the "vehicle of thought," but they tell anew the story of their times and enrich the great body of history with countless incidents of value and importance. In studying their genealogy, the English-speaking people find the starting-point of many an illustrious name in the peculiar circumstances of those mediæval times,—the natural product of the mingling of different tongues, and the constant struggle between feudalism and servitude.

The famous old manor-house, Cumnor Castle, so celebrated in romance, once enjoyed the rent-fee and service of a large body of retainers, and carried for many a year, by reason of its feudal allotments, a numerous vassalage. Its walls have long since fallen into shapeless ruins, but the lands of its tenantry now embrace the beautiful village of Cumnor. The families bearing this name have not been numerous in England, but have maintained their lineage with remarkable directness. The earliest trace of these people shows that they belonged to the industrial classes,—the guilds-people, who in the latter part of the seventeenth century had attained such prominence as to nearly control the business interests of the great metropolis, and to whom the Lord Mayor of London was pleased to say on a memorable occasion, "While our gracious nobility are the leaf and flower of the kingdom, ye are the sturdy trunk and branches."

The subject of this sketch belongs to the third generation in America. His grandfather Robert Francis Cumner came to this country when about fifteen years of age, under circumstances of a very interesting character. In June, 1774, while walking in the streets of London, he was seized by a "gang of pressmen" from the ship Somerset, sent out to recruit his Majesty's marine. He was carried directly on board, forced to become one of the crew, and do the duty of a common sailor. He was not allowed the privilege of communicating with his friends, and no tidings from him or knowledge of his situation were received during the long cruise of the Somerset in distant waters, until she appeared in Boston harbor and took part in the battle of Bunker Hill. Her position and the service she rendered the British troops on that memorable day are well known in history. From her decks came the first fatal shot, and under the fire of her guns the broken and retreating ranks of royalists found protection.

The scenes of that bloody struggle made a deep impression upon the mind of young Cumner, and fixed his determination to take no part in the work of subjugation. Circumstances fortunately soon favored his settled purpose. The Somerset not long after the battle "got aground," probably somewhere in the lower part of Massachusetts bay. During their efforts to get afloat, some of the crew went ashore, among them the Cumner boy, who immediately availed himself of the opportunity to escape from his unwilling service. While following the highway into which he first came, near the shore where lay the stranded Somerset he was overtaken by a Quaker on horseback, who, learning his situation and purpose to obtain his freedom from the "British yoke," invited our young hero to "get up behind," and, throwing his gray cloak over the lad, soon carried him beyond the king's power.

He settled in Wareham, Mass., learned the tailor's trade and began the permanent business of his life. October 20, 1785, he married Miss Sylvia Sturtevant, whose family connections were very worthy and highly respected. Her father was a soldier in the war of the Revolution, and fell on the battle-field fighting for independence. The Sturtevant people have received honorable mention in the annals of history, and their name is written among those who deserve well of their country. Not long after his marriage he moved to Sandwich, Mass., from that place to Wayne, in the state of Maine, where he resided during the remainder of his life. He was successful in business and became a prominent and highly respected citizen. He was a man of modest and retiring habits and exemplary character, but of indomitable will and inflexible adherence to what he believed to be right. If his life were the subject of our sketch, we could fill it with incidents showing his remarkable tenacity of purpose. Robert Francis and Sylvia Cumner had two children,—John, born January 19, 1788, and Polly, a few years younger. He died February 5, 1825, and his wife, March 26, 1826, and their remains were interred in the Evergreen cemetery in Wayne.

John Cumner was but a few months old when the family moved from Sandwich, Mass., to Wayne. He was of a sanguine active nature and early evinced the character of a sincere and zealous worker in religious matters. He obtained a fair education, and although to a certain extent compelled to work on the farm and devote himself to that kind of employment, his thoughts ran upon matters more congenial to his nature. When about eighteen years of age he was employed by Gen. Landsell to take charge of his farm in Bridgewater, Mass., where he remained several summer seasons. During this time he became acquainted with Miss Hannah Thomas Bartlett, of Bridgewater, whom he married July 11, 1813. He settled in Wayne, upon the farm which became the homestead, and was so occupied by the family during his many years of labor and life in the ministry.

He was associated with the society of the Methodist Episcopal church, and interested in the affairs of that denomination, at the early age of nineteen years, and soon after appointed a class leader and licensed to preach. His labors were attended with marked success, and at the annual meeting of the general conference for Maine, in 1833, he was admitted to membership and received his first appointment. He continued in the active ministry until 1852, when failing health obliged him to cease labor; but his love for the church and his zeal in the cause of its established creeds continued unabated during his remaining years. He died February 5, 1861, closing a life of industry and devotion, in which he had accomplished more good than usually falls to the lot of man. His wife died December 5, 1852. She was very beautiful when young, and was much beloved and admired by her wide circle of friends. Possessed of an earnest and devotional nature, she entered with ardent sympathy into the plans and labors of her husband; faithfully bearing her share of life's varied duties,—firmly in the hour of trial, and with amiable companionship when prosperity filled the measure of their ambition. They had eleven children, two of whom died in infancy. Three others have deceased,—Maryetta in 1871, and Francis and James in 1881. The remaining members of the family are Cathamander, William B., John T., Nathaniel W., Charles W., and Benjamin G. Cumner.

Nathaniel Wentworth, the youngest but two of the children of John and Hannah T. Cumner, was born at Wayne, November 28, 1829. His early life was devoted to obtaining an education in the vicinity of his home, passing from the district to the private school in the town of Wayne, and to other schools and seminaries in the circuit where his father's appointments were made. During some portion of the season, for a few years he assisted the older brothers in cultivating the homestead farm, but at the age of sixteen he went to Wilton, Me., and engaged in learning the tailor's trade. He remained there about three years; then went to Waltham, Mass., staying there about one year and a half; then to Lowell, Mass., where he remained until 1851, when he came to Manchester, N. H., and entered the employ of B. F. Manning, then doing business in the store occupied in later years by the firm of Cumner & Company.

In January, 1854, Mr. Cumner became a partner in the business of merchant tailors and clothiers, the firm name being Manning & Cumner. This arrangement continued until August, 1857. Mr. Cumner then withdrew and went to Washington, D. C., as a member of the firm of F. Tenney & Co., proprietors of the National Hotel. In August, 1859, he returned to Manchester and purchased the stock and "good will" of the Manning store, and entered at once into business, in which he continued as the sole proprietor until 1865, when his brother Benjamin G. Cumner became associated with him, forming the copartnership of Cumner & Company. At this time Mr. Cumner became also a member of the well known wholesale house of Sibley, Cumner, & Co., in Boston, having purchased an interest in the old house of Foster & Sibley, and devoted his attention largely to the wholesale trade. In 1868, Lyman E. Sibley retired and Mr. Cumner became the senior member, the name of the firm remaining the same.

In the great fire of November 9, 1872, their establishment was among the first to be burned, and the firm suffered a total loss of their immense stock; but their credit was so strong, and their energy and ability so widely recognized, that their business received no check, and the transactions of the house proceeded even upon a more extensive scale than before. In 1879 the firm became Cumner, Jones, & Co., which is the present style of the business. In 1881 he sold his interest in the business of Cumner & Co. in Manchester, which had enjoyed unvarying success and great prosperity from the beginning; and from that time devoted himself entirely to the Boston house. The business had so largely increased that it became necessary to give it his constant personal attention. The reputation of Cumner, Jones, & Co., in commercial circles, has become widely known, and its remarkable success an acknowledged fact.

Mr. Cumner has been eminently successful as a business man. Possessing in a large degree self-reliance and confidence in his own judgment, he selected an honorable calling and devoted himself to its duties and demands. He believed that industry and perseverance, with well matured plans, were certain to produce the most desirable results. He knew the energy and fidelity of his own character, and trusted to the safety of sound principle; and he has proved that his plans were wisely laid and his ways well chosen. At a comparatively early age he has acquired a competence, and in his position of senior member of one of the soundest and most prosperous, and at the same time conservative, wholesale houses in New England, his influence is always in favor of that healthy and reliable condition of trade which establishes public confidence and guarantees general prosperity.

And not only in connection with his partnership associations is Mr. Cumner known as a business man. In the circles where the leading merchants and importers of our New England metropolis are accustomed to meet and discuss the laws of trade and canvass the prospects of the future, his judgment is greatly respected, and the intelligence and foresight with which he is able to advise are highly regarded. He bears an unblemished reputation as a man of honor and fairness, in all ways commanding universal respect and esteem,—a gentleman in the true significance of the term. In the wide range of personal distinction, among all the marks of honor and renown which the world affords, the title of a true gentleman stands first, and he who bears it worthily need envy neither prince nor potentate.

As a citizen, Mr. Cumner has taken an earnest and unvarying interest in public affairs. Politically, his associations have been with the Democratic party; but his views have been conservative, looking to the real purposes of the government rather than the aims and desires of party politicians. While residing in Manchester he held important offices in the municipal government, was a faithful public servant, working zealously to promote the general interests and the common good of his constituents, of whom he deserved well.

Mr. Cumner became a member of the celebrated military organization, the Amoskeag Veterans, in the days of its origin, and has continued to do active duty through the entire term of its existence. He held the office of captain in 1870, and commander of the battalion, with the rank of major, in 1879 and 1880. During his membership he has served in countless capacities incident to the general management of the organization, and while commander did very effective service in promoting harmony and unity of purpose, and increased in a great degree the interest and efficiency of the corps.

Mr. Cumner's connection with the Masonic fraternity has been a very prominent feature of his life. He became a Mason in Lafayette Lodge, Manchester. May, 1850, and was one of the petitioners and charter members of Washington Lodge in 1857. He held many subordinate offices, and was the Worshipful Master in 1862 and 1863, and has been treasurer nearly all the time since. His keen scrutiny of its business affairs and careful management of its accounts have done much to keep his lodge in sound financial condition. In 1856 he received the capitular degrees in Mt. Horeb Royal Arch Chapter, and, after serving at almost every post in that body, became its High Priest from 1862 to 1864. He took the cryptic degrees in Adoniram Council, in May, 1857, and soon after the orders of knighthood were conferred upon him in Trinity Commandry, Knights Templar. In all these subordinate bodies he sustained an ardent and zealous membership, contributing freely to their support and aiding materially in their prosperity. In 1802 he was admitted to the degree of High Priesthood, and in 1803 received the degrees of the Ancient and Accepted Rite to the 32d, inclusive, in Boston, and in September, 1881, was elected to the 33rd and last grade in Masonry. In the Grand Masonic bodies of New Hampshire he has been equally prominent, and his earnest labors and sincere devotion to their interests have been recognized and appreciated. After holding several offices in the M. E. Grand Royal Arch Chapter of New Hampshire, he was elected Grand High Priest in 1867 and 1868, and gave eminent satisfaction by his management of affairs. In the Grand Lodge of New Hampshire he held nearly all the subordinate positions, and was elected Most Worshipful Grand Master in 1872, 1873, and 1874. As the presiding officer in these grand bodies, whose duties are mostly legislative, he commanded the respect of the fraternity for fairness and impartiality, and was highly esteemed for his graceful and courteous bearing. His addresses and official papers were regarded as sound and creditable documents by the fraternity in other jurisdictions.

If Mr. Cumner has been prosperous and successful in other departments of life, he has been remarkably happy and fortunate in his family and social relations. He married Miss Harriet Elizabeth Wadley, daughter of Moses D. Wadley, of Bradford, N. H., January 24, 1856. They have two sons,—Harry Wadley Cumner, born July 18, 1860, and Arthur Bartlett Cumner, born July 30, 1871. Harry Wadley graduated from the Manchester high school in 1879, with high standing in his class and the reputation of a faithful and efficient student. He entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Boston, in 1879, as a special student, remaining two years. In 1881 he engaged in mercantile life; and having integrity and the capacity to make the best use of his privileges and attainments, he has certainly the earnest of a prosperous and honorable life. Arthur Bartlett, a bright and beautiful boy of uncommon intelligence, has yet to climb the pathway of youth; but if aught can be predicted from such tender years he is not likely to disappoint the fond hopes of parents and friends.

In the common judgment of mankind, woman receives very little credit for the success of man in the struggles and achievements of this life. The intuitive judgment and unfaltering support with which the faithful and devoted wife aids her husband are unseen influences, the force and importance of which never have been and probably never will be understood or appreciated; and, although the remarkable success which the subject of this sketch has gained may be attributed to his ability and integrity, still the high social position to which the family have attained, and the important and very creditable purposes which they have accomplished, are equally due to the clear and well trained judgment, the watchful care and oversight of domestic affairs, and the amiable companionship of his estimable and accomplished wife. While in their relative spheres, either in the busy marts of trade or the domestic departments of life, "on change" or in the drawing-room, each to a certain extent must be judged independently, in all the economy of life her individuality and influence will be seen to have done their full share in molding the fortunes of the family.

Anxiously we strive to look behind the "cloud curtains" that veil the future and hide from view what lies in the untried ways beyond. Vainly through the shadows which the sorrows of real life cast far in advance, and into the misty lands "whence come the troops of good and evil forces," so strangely and mysteriously mingled, we gaze and endeavor to discern the hastening events upon which our happiness and success so largely depend. But if we may predict of the future by the past, if we can anticipate what is to come by what has been accomplished, then shall the members of this family be blessed with the enjoyment of their full share of all that is happiest and best.